A hearing held on January 30, 2007, by the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform revealed a widespread pattern of political interference in the operations of federal scientific activities, including censorship of federal scientists’ speech and writing, the distortion and suppression of research results, and retaliation against those who protest these acts. These charges raise profoundly important questions about the basis for public policies that rely on sound science, the government’s respect for fundamental constitutional rights and privileges, and the effective operation of our democracy.
The Integrity of Science Is At Stake
Censorship of science is deeply troubling on many levels. At the most basic, it affronts the fundamental premises of the scientific method. Science is not static. It constantly questions, borrows from, builds on, and adds to existing knowledge. Its basic tools include formulating and testing hypotheses, documentation and replication of results, peer review, and publication.* For science to advance, knowledge must be shared. Without the free exchange of ideas, science as we understand it cannot exist and progress.
The purpose of science is to produce knowledge. If science is corrupted, what flows from it is not knowledge, but something else – misinformation, propaganda, and partial-truths.
Constitutional and Historical Values Are At Stake
Censorship of science also violates two core constitutional and historical traditions: the respect for knowledge as the basis of democracy, and the commitment to the free exchange of ideas to ensure that knowledge is shared. The Founders extolled the power of education and scientific knowledge, and indeed saw the development of learning and education as a basic underpinning to democracy. Thomas Jefferson saw science as the paradigm of truth-seeking processes and described liberty as the “great parent of science.” Benjamin Franklin was well-known for his belief in scientific inquiry, rational decision making, and the need for an educated electorate. And in his 1796 farewell address, President George Washington enjoined the country to “Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
These values have long been recognized by the Supreme Court:
The freedom of speech and of the press guaranteed by the Constitution embraces at the least the liberty to discuss publicly and truthfully all matters of public concern without previous restraint or fear of subsequent punishment. The exigencies of the colonial period and the efforts to secure freedom from oppressive administration developed a broadened conception of these liberties as adequate to supply the public need for information and education with respect to the significant issues of the times…. Freedom of discussion, if it would fulfill its historic function in this nation, must embrace all issues about which information is needed or appropriate to enable the members of society to cope with the exigencies of their period. Thornhill v. Alabama , 310 US 88, 101-2 (1940).
The rights of the general public are deeply implicated by censorship of scientific speech. Just as the Court has recognized the value of speech to the speaker, it has also recognized the concomitant rights of the listener, who has a correlative right to receive information. See , e.g ., Griswold v. Connecticut , 381 U.S. 479, 482 (1965):
the State may not, consistently with the spirit of the First Amendment, contract the spectrum of available knowledge. The right of freedom of speech and press includes not only the right to utter or to print, but the right to distribute, the right to receive, the right to read … and freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and freedom to teach…
Informed Decision-Making, the Backbone of Democracy, Is At Stake
The reported acts of suppression and distortion of scientific findings violate the compact between the government and the governed that the Constitution was designed to protect. In chilling the free speech of the scientists on critical policy questions that profoundly affect the public interest and well-being, whether it is climate change or AIDS prevention, these actions hurt the people who have a right to receive accurate, reliable, and valid information about critical policy decisions. Scientists who work for the government have a right to practice their profession according to the highest professional standards, including the ability to speak freely about their research and to collaborate with other scientists. Government scientists, like other government employees, should have the same rights as other members of the community, to speak on matters of general concern. Indeed, as Stephen Hawking recently reminded us, it is the duty of scientists to speak out on such matters:
As scientists… we are learning how human activities and technologies are affecting climate systems in ways that may forever change life on Earth …. As citizens of the world, we have a duty to alert the public to the unnecessary risks that we live with every day, and to the perils we foresee if governments and societies do not take action now … to prevent further climate change. As we stand at the brink of … a period of unprecedented climate change, scientists have a special responsibility.**
In sum, what is at stake is the integrity of government sponsored science, the ability of government scientists to adhere to the highest professional standards, their right to contribute to debates on matters of pressing public concern; and the public’s access to information created by public servants that is necessary to make informed judgments and hold officials accountable for their actions.
Recognizing the speech rights of government scientists is only the first step. There are other restrictions on the flow of scientific information, including but not limited to restrictions on government-funded research in private universities and other institutions. Resolutions of these issues should likewise be guided by the principles noted above.
We commend Rep. Waxman and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and look forward to their continuing efforts to inform the public about this critical issue. The testimony strongly supports the Committee’s continued vigilance to ensure that federal policy is informed by the highest quality of scientific information and that federal officials respect not just the letter but the spirit of the Constitution by encouraging free and open debate on matters of public concern.
American Association of University Professors
American Civil Liberties Union
American Library Association
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Association of American Publishers
National Center for Science Education
National Coalition Against Censorship
PEN American Center
People For the American Way
* According to NIH, the scientific method is defined as the “formulation and testing of hypotheses, controlled observations or experiments, analysis and interpretation of data, and oral and written presentation of all of these components to scientific colleagues for discussion and further conclusions….” Guidelines for the Conduct of Research at the National Institutes of Health , www.nih.gov/campus/irnews/guidelines.htm#anchor124626 < http://www.nih.gov/campus/irnews/guidelines.htm#anchor124626 > .